Although the First Amendment covers public high school and college journalists as well as their professional counterparts, the student press often faces censorship the professional press does not. When student media are suppressed, the Student Press Law Center tries to be an ally to those who are censored.
“Student journalism is inherently different (from professional journalism) because students operate in a climate where their publications usually owe their existence to the very people they must write about — the administrators and/or the student government leadership at the school,” said Frank LoMonte, director of the Student Press Law Center. “Unless the publication has complete financial independence from the school, students have to do their jobs with the knowledge that they may be antagonizing the people with life-or-death control over their publications.”
The SPLC, founded in Arlington, Va., in 1974, works to ensure that student journalists have the legal resources necessary to fight censorship or withstand legal challenges. The center was launched after a study funded by the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial found students were losing interest in journalism because their work was being censored. Since then, the SPLC has been “the nation’s only legal assistance agency devoted exclusively to educating high school and college journalists about the rights and responsibilities embodied in the First Amendment and supporting the student news media in their struggle to cover important issues free from censorship,” according to its Web site.
Around 2,500 people contact the SPLC each year, using its free legal advice and educational resources. While LoMonte says that some student-speech challenges fall into gray areas, most of the cases in which SPLC takes part involve clear violations of students’ free-speech rights.
“What we see time and time again are students being censored because their journalism will ‘make the school look bad’ or because they are taking on topics that will offend the moral standards of some people in the larger community,” he said. “While professional media do have to deal with community pressures and advertiser pressures, their editors ultimately get to make the decision whether certain editorial content is so important that it is worth offending some readers or even losing some advertisers. Students often are not being allowed to make those decisions. Instead, the principal or superintendent is deciding that entire topics are off-limits for discussion, which takes the judgment out of the editors’ hands where it belongs.”
Legal services that the SPLC provides in cases such as these include free legal advice via telephone or letter on media-law topics, case and litigation analysis, revision and evaluation of rules governing student publications, friend-of-the-court briefs for students involved in litigation, and referrals to pro bono attorneys located near students facing legal issues. The SPLC’s Attorney Referral Network has nearly 150 lawyers nationwide.
The Attorney Referral Network has helped people such as Karen Bosley, adviser for the Viking News at Ocean County College in New Jersey. Bosley was removed in 2006 from her position after the newspaper published articles criticizing the school’s administration. In the 2007 SPLC Annual Report, Bosley wrote that with the legal representation secured by the SPLC, her students filed a lawsuit against the college that resulted in a federal judge’s reinstating her as adviser.
In another success story, SPLC attorneys provided counsel for a college student at the State University of New York-Purchase who was arrested for taking news photos of a campus drug raid, and all charges were dismissed.
The SPLC also filed an amicus curiae brief in 2007 in support of student Joseph Frederick in Morse v. Frederick, the “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” case. Although Frederick did not win, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the principles of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School Dist. that students retain First Amendment rights while at school.
Although the SPLC uses the services of lawyers from around the country, much of its work is done by a small staff in Arlington. Before becoming director in January, LoMonte, a graduate of the University of Georgia School of Law, was an attorney at an energy and telecommunications firm. Earlier, LoMonte worked for nine years as a bureau chief with the Morris News Service in Atlanta. At the SPLC, LoMonte has moved to expand the nonprofit’s work, including introducing a new-media advisory board to help with issues related to new forms of news dissemination.
“We need to have media companies, the legal communities, and people in new media … we need all of those industries who depend on the First Amendment and who hire young people who are creative to play a part in the SPLC,” LoMonte told the First Amendment Center Online.
The board includes 17 top media lawyers from firms across the country who have agreed to promote the SPLC and serve as a resource to students on specialized cases.
“It’s a group that I think very much agrees with and supports our work,” LoMonte said. “Having this committee will help us to get our word around and help us raise our profile.”
LoMonte also wants to expand student journalism content on the SPLC’s Web site.
“One of the big problems that we have today … when we take First Amendment cases to court is that judges are looking at these cases and seeing students who are engaging in what looks like frivolous and insubstantial speech. I want judges to recognize that there is excellent student journalism being done, and that when courts punish the people who are using frivolous speech they are also punishing those who are doing excellent journalism,” LoMonte said. “I want to have examples of that journalism on our Web site.”
The SPLC’s Web site, www.splc.org, has legal research, news and educational resources about student-press issues. In the online Legal Research Center, the SPLC has information available on press freedom and censorship, access to records, meetings and places, Internet and online media, libel and privacy, protecting sources, copyright and advertising.
The organization also maintains a law library of court decisions and statutes important to student journalists, and it runs the SPLC Virtual Lawyer, a program that addresses specific questions students and advisers may submit.
Additionally, the SPLC Report, the center’s magazine, published three times a year, is available online and highlights news and advice in various categories such as high school censorship, legislation, Internet access, libel and privacy, and college censorship. New articles concerning student-press issues related to the SPLC’s work are posted regularly on the Web site, as well. Other resources include legal guides for media advisers and students facing censorship, and media-law Powerpoint presentations. The SPLC also has a monthly series of podcasts discussing up-to-date controversies involving student press.
Recently the SPLC sponsored “Your Voice, Your Freedom” — a campaign to increase student awareness and involvement in the organization. Students and teachers were encouraged to create their own Web pages, T-shirts and school programs using SPLC resources.
LoMonte says this type of student involvement is vital to the organization’s effectiveness.
“When students put their time and effort into building the organization, they become part owners of the organization for life. They will be loyal supporters. Students know much better than us what is interesting and appealing to people their age. This campaign was one way to keep them engaged in the work of the SPLC,” he said.
As technology changes the way news is disseminated, LoMonte hopes — with the help of students — to make sure the SPLC’s work remains relevant and useful.
“We’re at a really challenging time in journalism when so much is changing the way people gather and get their news,” he said. “SPLC needs to be changing along with it.”
Courtney Holliday is a senior majoring in economics and public policy at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.
Melanie Bengtson contributed research for this report.